The Lies Newspapers Tell Themselves About Their Traffic

from the that's-not-going-to-work-too-well... dept

We've already discussed how delusional it is to believe that 10 to 15% of online newspaper readers will suddenly convert to paying for online news content, but the numbers may be even worse than that. Jeff Sonderman points us to Alan Mutter discussing a report that suggests newspapers are vastly overcounting their online audiences:
In "nearly every market" included in a study of 118 newspapers of every size in every part of the country, Greg Harmon of Belden Interactive found that publishers on average report the number of unique visitors to their websites is 1.3 times larger than the population of their respective communities -- and fully 10 times greater than their print circulation.

Those numbers are not just moderately overstated. "They are magnificently incorrect," said Harmon
And that's a massive problem. If they're already expecting 10 to 15% of that population to pay, and it turns out that the real population is a lot smaller and a smaller percentage signs up to pay, the numbers that those in the industry are throwing around concerning paywalls are going to not just be bad, but they're going to be downright embarrassing.

On top of this, that same study noted that newspapers don't seem to realize how little of their actual traffic is from loyal visitors, which tend to only represent about 25% of the actual traffic. And, just because someone's a loyal visitor, it doesn't mean they'll pay. This leaves newspapers in a seriously bad spot when it comes to doing any sort of prediction on how a paywall will work:
  • You don't really know how many unique visitors you have.
  • You have to guess at the percentage of loyal visitors who will be amenable to paying for content.
  • You have to guess the price loyal visitors might pay.
  • You have to estimate not only how much web traffic you will lose but also how far your ad revenues will tumble in response to the almost certain decline in page views.
It's like watching a train wreck in motion. I'm hopeful that most newspaper execs actually have some inkling of this -- which is why we've heard mostly talk, and seen so little action, on paywalls.

Filed Under: newspapers, paywalls, traffic


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  1. icon
    PaulT (profile), 18 Sep 2009 @ 6:18am

    Hmmm... I'm not sure how the figures are necessarily incorrect just because they're larger than the local communities. I, for one, regularly click on links to newspapers in towns I've never heard of when they appear on aggregate sites or blogs I read. A website, by definition, has a reach much wider than the print edition does. That doesn't mean the unique visitor logs are wrong.

    Of course, that doesn't negate the main point - that such transient visitors are the least likely to pay for the core news content. The papers are certainly screwed if they try to force even a small proportion of visitors to pay for the current content, and even then they'll probably just cannibalise print subscribers rather than reaching new customers...

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